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As faithful readers know, my father recently passed away. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but in one final breath, I became the patriarch of the Ton family (going back at least four generations). It is now my responsibility to pass on the stories, to pass on the traditions, to respect the past and those who have come before. 

One of the joys of the last few years has been taking my grandsons, Braxton and Jordan, to visit my dad, Popper (or great-Popper) – to see his face light up when those little guys would bound into his room, show him their new games, or demonstrate their latest artwork. Dozens of images come to mind…Braxton pushing my dad in his wheelchair on the last Thanksgiving he would visit our house, or crawling onto his bed to play games with him when Dad could no longer get up. Jordan telling a story so funny both of them were laughing and giggling, or Dad wearing Jordan’s Easter hat to the delight of the little red-head. 

Two months almost to the day of dad’s passing, we welcomed Jasper Bryant Ton into the world. The second son of my second son. What an amazing joy to hold that little life in my arms, to look into his eyes. I could not help but think of my dad. He did not have a chance to meet Jasper, but I know he would adore him. My heart was overflowing with love. 

Braxton’s and Jordan’s memories of their time with my dad will fade, Jasper has no memories to fade.  Yes, there are pictures, hundreds of pictures, but it will be the stories that provide the connection. I want them to know of his laugh, his smile, his compassion, his goofy sense of humor. Most of all, I want them to know of his love, love for my mom, love for his family, and love for his fellow man and woman. 

I treasure the moments I have with my kids and my grandkids. Even on days when I am preoccupied with work, or too tired and crabby to be patient, or when there thousands of tasks that don’t get done. I celebrate my role as patriarch – to tell stories of Mary Ellen and Gene, Lawrence and Sara, Hallie and Mary and the generations who came before. 

Welcome to the world, Jasper Bryant Ton. You have been born into a family that loves you dearly. You have been born into a family with an amazing story. I can’t wait to share it all with you. 

 

Employee Engagement = Vision

It’s a topic that continually comes up in conversation with business leaders. How do I get my employees engaged? How do I keep them engaged? It’s all about vision.

Most people want to be a part of something larger than themselves. 

In my video post on LinkedIn last week, I posed the question, “Do you have a vision so compelling that people want to join you on the journey to achieve your vision?”

To me, it’s a fundamental question of leadership.

I believe we all want followers who:

  1. are engaged
  2. want to achieve what we want to achieve
  3. are so fanatical about our shared vision that they spend every day moving toward that vision. 

As leaders, we need to learn to paint. Yes, paint. 

Start with your vision

You have a vision.

You DO have one, right?

Is it aspirational?

Does it serve as a guide for current and future initiatives?

Is it compelling?

Does it go beyond the numbers?

I read a great blog post a few years ago. It was titled something like “Your ROI is Not a Vision”. In it, the author explained why your vision must go beyond the numbers. Profitability, revenue, and EBITDA may get you up in the morning, but for most of your team, that is not what gets them:

  • engaged
  • excited, or
  • up in the morning. 

Your employees want something to believe in – something aspirational.

If your vision doesn’t give them that, they will never be fully engaged.

You may need to reexamine your vision…right now. 

Learning to paint

You have a vision! Now, you have to communicate it…to everyone… every day.

You have to paint a picture of your vision so compelling that people want to join your company just to be a part of it. Painting this picture takes time – often more time than developing the vision itself. 

Let’s play a game of word association. I am going to say (okay, type) a word. I want you to respond with the first word that pops in your head.

Ready? 

Ball.

Ok. How many thought “game” or “bat” or “basket” or a “fancy party”? All great “pictures” in our mind’s eyes of a ball. But, we aren’t on the same page.

Let’s try again…

Baseball.

Ok, now what came to mind? “Stadium”, “Cubs”, “Cardinals”? Some may even have thought “boring”. Again, we are closer, but we still have different pictures in mind. 

What if we spent time as a group talking about our baseball? It’s brand new. It comes in a box. When we open the box, it is wrapped in that white crinkly paper. The smell of the leather reaches our nostrils.

As we unwrap the ball, the leather is bright white. The red stitching literally pops in contrast. As we run our fingers along the stitches, they feel like a washboard. The leather is soft, but the ball is hard. We see the major league baseball logo, the commissioner’s signature. 

Now, when I say “Let’s play ball”, chances are great that we will all see the same image in our minds. That is painting a picture. That is putting your listener or reader into the picture. 

I would love to hear from you. What is your vision?

Have you painted a picture for your followers?

Can they see themselves in that picture?

Post a comment, send an email, or give me a call!

I want to hear your stories! 

The question of a good or bad boss started with a phone call from a business colleague, who also happens to be a reader of this newsletter.

I had just hosted a podcast titled “Powerful Lessons from Bad Bosses” in which I interviewed John Rouda. In the episode, we traded some war stories about some of the horrible bosses we have had in our careers. The business colleague raised an interesting question and a challenge. 

The Boss Question?

Why is it that some aspiring leaders are more focused on not exhibiting the negative traits of bad bosses instead of focusing on the positive traits of the good ones? 

The Boss Challenge?

Write a post encouraging leaders to model good leaders and mentors. 

My Initial Reaction

Maybe it is human nature…the negative is more memorable than the positive.

Just watch the evening news…storms, fires, accidents, political discord…it grabs our attention. The feel-good story is cute but draws little reaction. It certainly doesn’t draw in an audience. 

Perhaps a bad boss impacts us in the same way. 

Perhaps, it is because the pain and discomfort caused by a bad boss hit our psyches deeper than the affirmations we receive from a good boss. 

I thought back on my own career. I have had some truly bad bosses. They certainly are memorable.

I once had a boss tell me to fire one of my team members because they walked too slowly across the parking lot. “If they walk that slow, they must code that slow”.

Have those bosses impacted my leadership style?

Without a doubt!

Did I consciously try to avoid the methods that I viewed as “bad”?

I most certainly did. 

The Bad Boss Characteristics

I have had a lot of bosses during my career, some good, some bad, some a little bit of both. I’ve tried to learn from all of them… 

  • Micromanager?

I try to provide an environment of autonomy. I love the way one of my bosses described his style, “autonomy with accountability”.

Great way to counterbalance the Micromanager. 

  • RIP (Retired in Place)?

Now that I have reached the twilight of my own career, I certainly do not want to be remembered as RIP.

I would rather be remembered like a boss that continually tried to battle the status quo, to inspire a team to greatness, a boss who would always go to bat for the team. 

  • Tyrant?

Never. Not my personality.

If management and leadership involved belittling those around me, I wanted no part of it. I try to be patient, I try to be kind, I try to be encouraging.

I’d rather coach and teach than yell and scream! 

The Good Boss Characteristics

  • Servant?

Absolutely!

In the early 2000s, I was introduced to the Servant Leader, through the book by the same name. That was the type of leader I wanted to be.

I have had several bosses during my career that I would describe as servant leaders. Their focus was on us, their team. They:

  1. cared about our careers.
  2. cared about us.
  3. removed roadblocks.
  4. held us accountable.
  • Mentor?

A resounding yes!

I have had some wonderful mentors throughout my career. Some were my boss, most were not. Some probably didn’t even know I thought of them as mentors.

I continue to work with mentors, even while mentoring others. To me, it is one of the best ways to learn. I think I learn more from those I mentor than they ever learn from me. 

  • Strategic?

Transformational? Sign me up!

Those leaders who have a vision, can articulate that vision, can lead us toward that vision are the leaders I will follow anywhere!

That is the type of leader I strive to be each and every day. I don’t always succeed. It takes time, energy, and a perspective of the future. 

The Question and the Challenge

I believe it takes both.

I wish all managers were great leaders.

That fact is, not all of them are. We can:

  • learn from both.
  • learn what to do…and what NOT to do.
  • observe, we tune, we seek feedback. 

I would love to hear from you.

What type of boss has impacted you the most?

What have you learned from your bosses…good, bad?

How do you encourage those around you to learn and grow as leaders?

Post a comment, send an email, give me a call! I want to hear your stories! 

This eulogy was delivered at First Baptist Church on January 11, 2020, and at Hoosier Village Chapel on January 13, 2020, in honor of my daddy, coach, dad, popper, pop, Gene Ton. If you are interested in watching a video of the entire service, you can find it here: L. Eugene Ton. (Note: the first 30 seconds are a black screen with the brass quintet playing. The video then fades in.)

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My heart hurts. Our hearts hurt. 

Despite the pain, we want to celebrate. Celebrate an amazing life and a truly incredible man. 

Before I get to that, I want to let you in on a little secret. Dad wasn’t perfect. I can remember as clear as day. He and I were repairing the gutters on our home in Evansville (you see, someone’s basketball kept crashing into them, must have Joel’s, mine always swished through the hoop). Anyway, there we were, dad up on the ladder and me holding it steady. When it happened. With a mighty swing of the hammer, expecting to hear the metal on metal clang of the hammer, I heard instead, metal on thumb. Yes, that might blow smashed his thumb. Time seemed to slow down. I could see it building up. His face growing red. I thought, here it is, I am finally going to hear my dad say “damn”…or worse. His face now covered in a grimace. Here it came…”fffffffiddlesticks!” Yep, Fiddlesticks. That was our dad. 

I am sure all the family could regale you with other stories of dad, probably some that actually show some imperfections. He truly was special. We are so happy to celebrate him with you. We shared him with all of you for most of his life. I’d like to do something a bit unusual. I always loved it when dad would do something unusual in his sermons. One of the things he did that always caught my attention, was when he would come out from behind the pulpit and step down to be with the congregation. Sometimes he would become a character in his sermon: Peter; James; Paul. Other times he would just talk with us. I’ll tell you, for a junior and senior high kid, it really made me sit up and pay attention. Heck, it made the whole congregation sit up and pay attention to what he was saying. 

No, I’m not going to be one of the disciples today, THAT would be a bit of a stretch. But, I am going to involve all of you for a moment. 

In honor of dad, I’d like you to stand if dad officiated your wedding (some of us had the honor of him doing that for us more than once). Now, stay standing. 

If dad officiated one of your children’s weddings, please stand. 

How about baptism? If he baptized you, please stand. 

Please stand if he officiated a funeral for a loved one or family member. 

How many here were the benefit of his wise counsel over the years, you don’t have to tell us why, your secret is safe. Please stand. 

How many here felt the warmth of his smile, the comfort of his greeting, the guidance of his leadership? 

If you are not standing by now, please stand. Please join me in thanking him, by repeating after me. “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord”. {repeat} 

Thank you, you can be seated. 

We all experienced dad in different ways. Even those who he and mom raised experienced him differently. 

For me, first, there was daddy, playing in the yards of the parsonages in Lafayette and Lebanon. Pushing me in the swing. Teaching me to ride a bike without training wheels in the alley. Building Pinewood Derby cars for the annual Cub Scout tradition. His annual tradition for Memorial Day: take his small transistor radio out to the garage, tune in the Indy 500 and wash and wax his car. It was an exciting day when I finally got to help! We learned quickly that daddy was different than most. Daddy was Reverend Ton, unlike most kids not only did we live next door to his “office”, but we went there multiple times a week. People treated him differently, people treated us differently. What I remember most about daddy was his smile. 

Next came Coach…Little League Baseball…Flag football, teaching me to shoot a layup on the goal behind the garage. He was there with patience and gentle coaching (sometimes not so gentle coaching). This is where dementia may have been a bit of a blessing. To hear him tell it today, I was an all-star catcher in Little League. Uh, dad, You coached the all-star team because our team won first place. I said the Little League pledge for the Allstar game because I wasn’t didn’t make the team. How he became my Little League coach is a microcosm of the type of man he was, the type of father he was. After watching a couple of my team’s practices and observing the way the coach treated us; yelling, screaming, cursing. Dad tried to coach the coach on a better approach. Professionally, not in front of the kids, in private. The guy quit. Rather than going to the league to find another coach, dad stepped up and became a coach. What I remember most about the coach was his patience. 

By the time we were in Evansville he was just “dad”. Evansville was much bigger than Lebanon. Dad was learning how to lead an urban church, and I was learning about high school. Dad was still “Reverend Ton”…I can remember my mom and dad giving a tour of the parsonage to a group of “old ladies” from the church (they were probably 60!). As they passed my brother’s room, she remarked, “Oh and this must be Reverend Ton’s room.” Uh, no! He slept down the hall with my mother. There were four of us for Pete’s sake, as far as I know, there has only been one immaculate conception. Despite the fact that he was Reverend Ton to most, to me he was dad. He was the guy I could go to for anything. He was the guy that would do anything for us. During this time, he taught me the game of golf. Dad loved golf. Of all the sports, golf was king. At first, I got to tag along with the foursome, take a few swings here and there. Later, just the two of us would go. Inevitably, they would pair us up with another twosome. I noticed dad always introduced himself as “Gene”. Not Reverend Ton. When I asked him about it, his answer was simple, “if I introduce myself as Reverend, they will act differently because I am a pastor. They may not enjoy themselves as much, so here I am “just Gene”. When I was a freshman in college, and homesick…it was him I called. It was him who provided the reassurance I needed to hear, not only in his words but in the sound of his voice through the phone. What I remember most about dad was his quiet leadership. 

Along about 1978, he became grandpa…Popper as my kids and my sister’s kids called him. Dad would have been in his late 50’s and into his 60’s. The great Reverend Doctor, the leader of leaders, the pastor of pastors became putty in the hands of those little creatures. He would laugh, and joke and smile ear to ear. Popper loved Christmas, he and Mimi both did. But if Mimi was the queen of Christmas, dad was the king of Easter. He would spend hours hiding eggs in the yard. So many eggs, he had to have a map in case the five grandkids couldn’t find them all. And, then. And then, there was the Easter play. A silly little play about Captain Dan the Fried Egg Man. We all had a role. Even the littlest ones could do sound effects. But it was popper, it was dad, who took it up a notch. Creating costumes for his characters, using different funny voices as he played different roles. He may not have been a hit on Broadway, but he was a hit with the little ones! What I remember most about Popper was his humor. 

The last few years, he became “Pop”. I’m not sure if that was a shortened version of “Popper”, the name the grandkids call him, or sign of the change in our relationship. The parent became the child, and the child became the parent. It has been an honor to be on this journey with him, whether we were going toe-to-toe: “Quit treating me like a child!” “You quit acting like one!” Gee, where have I heard THAT before; or taking in an Indians game, telling the same stories, laughing at the same jokes game after game, year after year; or sitting quietly in his room at Hoosier Village just “being”. A few years ago, when I was contemplating a career move, the decision to leave Goodwill, a job I loved, a mission I loved and people I loved…I went to Pop. You see, he was still in there. I went to him for guidance. He asked questions, he told stories, he answered my questions about his own career and the choices he had made to leave one church for another or to leave the pulpit and take an executive minister role for the denomination.  True to form…he never gave me the answer. What I remember most about pop was his wisdom. 

We have all experienced dad in different ways…but always the same: funny, caring, compassionate, empathetic, and loving…pastoral…ministering us all…even at the end. 

Join me once again. “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord”. {repeat}

Well done good and faithful father. Enter into the joy of your Lord.

After posing that question, the executive I was having lunch with went on to explain he had always tried to create a family-like environment at his company. “You know, having fun, hanging out, being one of the gang.”

Now he was faced with some of his staff not performing. When he tried to address it they pushed back saying “You’ve changed”, or “You’re overreacting”, or worse. 

It’s a tough question and one that many managers and leaders struggle to answer.

It doesn’t matter if you are new to a management role or, like my friend, someone who has been leading people for several decades.

Can you be friends with the people that work for you? 

The old adage is you can be friendly but not friends.

As a new manager back in a decade that started with a “9”, I took that advice. Many of my friends were now my employees. I all but stopped socializing with them. There were no more parties, no more weekend trips on the houseboat, and no grabbing a drink after work.

Oh sure, we still did team happy hours occasionally (hey, it was the 90’s) but for the most part, I became “management”. 

It took me a long time to realize that old adage was, well… BS.

I think the reason our managers and mentors espoused that adage was because it makes the tough times easier.

It is far easier to have those tough conversations about performance or layoffs if you don’t know what is going on in their personal life.

They may be going through a divorce, or have elderly parents who are in failing health, or have kids that are struggling in school…you know, all the real stuff that doesn’t make it to Facebook. 

Do you know them?

I now believe you have to know those in your office on a personal level.

How else are you going to lead them?

  • Knowing them helps you to celebrate with them when their kid enters kindergartner or gets accepted into college.
  • Knowing them helps you connect, we all (even leaders) crave connection, we are human after all!
  • Knowing them helps you to lead with empathy and compassion.

Yes, those tough conversations are tougher…on us, they were always tough on the other person. If those types of conversations are ever easy…you are in the wrong job! 

But, it is a two-way street.

Do they know you?

To form those relationships you have to let your employees see you for who you are.

Tell them about the joy of a new grandchild, or the pain of the death of a parent. To form those relationships you have to be vulnerable. 

For the leader who asked the question… be vulnerable.

  • Tell them about the sleepless nights worrying about making payroll.
  • Tell them how you feel the weight of 200 individuals and their 200 families.
  • Tell them about the gnawing in the pit of your stomach every day as you care for your business almost like your child.

If they don’t respond with empathy and compassion towards you, if they don’t see you as a friend, but also a leader who has to have tough conversations, if they don’t rally to the mission at hand, perhaps you don’t have the relationship you thought you had. 

I would love to hear your thoughts! Please comment (or email) on this topic. Have a leadership question you would like to ask? Send me a note. I am happy to share my thoughts and have others chime in as well! 

What is your vision for the future

Do you know your vision?

I’ve spoken about connections to the past quite often. Vision plays a role.

Call them connections, call them reminders, call them divine coincidences, sometimes the universe ties events of the past with things transpiring today. Sometimes they are “huh, that was interesting” moments and sometimes they hold powerful lessons if we choose to look. 

I subscribe to the newsletter series by Jason Barnaby of Fire Starters (if you don’t subscribe, you should). Jason sends out quick thoughts three times a week. In his Monday blast (aptly titled M3 – Monday Morning Motivation), a few weeks ago Jason spoke of vision, but not just vision. Repeated here, with permission, Jason said:

“If you are a leader, whose permission are you waiting for to lead?”

“If you serve a magnificent God, do you have a magnificent vision to match?”

“These are two quotes by T.D. Jakes from the Global Leadership Summit several years ago that I think about at least once a week. They had a PROFOUND effect on my life’s direction and what I am doing now with Fire Starters Inc.”

Even if you aren’t a person of faith, the question of magnificent vision still applies.

So how is your vision for what you are currently doing and hope to do in the future?

      • Are you happening to it or is it happening to you?
      • Are you being proactive or reactive?
      • Worse yet, are you living someone else’s vision for your life? 

You have gifts, talents, abilities, experience, wisdom, and insight that the world is waiting on and desperately needs.

As many of Jason’s posts do…it got me thinking.

I talk to Information Technology departments (and HR and Marketing departments, too) a lot about vision.

We discuss how to create one, how to communicate it and how to define and execute strategies to achieve it.

But…

What about my own vision?

Is it a magnificent vision?

And, what of leadership?

What of my leadership? 

Wow, pretty heady stuff for a Monday morning! But this post is about connections, right?

Then it happened.

My son, Brad, was dropping off his son, Jordan, for another fabulous day with grandma. When he arrived, he handed me a folder. “Mom found this as she and Randy were packing for their move. She thought you might want it.” 

In the folder was a picture. The picture was taken about 34 years ago. A picture of my dad, holding on to my two sons, Jeremy and Brad.

A vision I could follow

Having just visited my dad the day before lying in bed at the nursing home, seeing the fifty-five-year-old version of my dad was a bit shocking, to say the least.

The man in that picture is six years younger than I am today. Yet in a 35-year blink of an eye, he is nearing the end of his journey. 

The folder also contained an old newspaper. A copy of the Indiana Baptist Observer from December 1995. There on page one was a letter from my dad to the American Baptist Churches of Indiana reflecting upon his pending retirement on the 31st of that month. In it, he reflects back on his 40 years in the ministry with the realization that his calling, the calling he had been following his entire career (and perhaps his entire life), was a call to lead.

Dad was a great preacher, teacher, coach, and counselor, yet, his calling was to lead…and lead he did! 

Though he never used the words “magnificent vision” (or, even vision for that matter), what jumped off the page to me was his magnificent vision for the churches he served and for the denomination organizations he led. He had a vision for what they could be and what they could accomplish.

Others followed too 

He also wrote of his vision for the future of the church, the challenges ahead, and the need for a new generation of leaders to help the church navigate that future.

Jason’s quote of T.D. Jakes rang in my ears.

“If you are a leader, whose permission are you waiting for to lead?”

Gene Ton would say,

“If you are being called to lead, why aren’t you listening to that call to lead?”

Whether it is for a church, a business, or your family, friends, and organizations…quit sitting back waiting on others: lead, my friend, lead!

You might be surprised how many others believe in your vision, too. 

Now, before you jump to any conclusions and think I am breaking up with my wife, Carmen, or worse yet, that I have become a Neil Sedaka fan, let me assure you neither of those horrific things is true!

business, leadership, Breaking Up is Hard to DoOver the last several months, I have been struggling with the decision to leave a job that I love and to embark on a journey down a new stretch of river. Yes, I am leaving the role of CIO for Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana to join Bluelock, an Indiana tech company that provides Disaster Recovery-as-a-Service (DRaaS) infrastructure and services, as EVP of Product and Service Development. So, after 35 years of being in Corporate IT, the last 10 of which as CIO, I am switching sides of the desk and joining a firm whose product IS technology.

Now, mind you, I absolutely love Goodwill. I firmly believe in the mission, I love the vision and direction, and will continue to support the organization with my time, talents and treasures as best as I am able. However, as sad as I am to leave this organization, I am just as excited about joining my new organization and pushing off to paddle into the unknown (note the veiled Lewis and Clark reference).

How I came to this decision reminds me a lot of how Carmen and I came to the decision to marry. You see, we had been business colleagues and friends for years. As we each went through our divorces, dating, bad break ups and more dating, more break ups, we started to hang out together more and more. We celebrated the highs of new relationships, shared the laughs of life’s journey and held each other through the tears of another break up.

I can’t tell you how hard we laughed, when a well intentioned Maitre D’ seated us at “our most romantic table”. Oh, my god no! We are just friends! Even our friends got in on the act, saying, “You should date Carmen” or “You should date Jeff”. OH. MY. GOD. NO! We are just friends! We don’t want to ruin our friendship!

A few months later, while sitting on her couch, we looked at each other and asked, “So, when did we start dating?” The rest, as they say is history! A match made in heaven, a match with a foundation of friendship, a match of kindred souls.

I have been joking for a couple of years now that if I ever left Goodwill, I would join Bluelock. Maybe subconsciously I was only half joking. At any rate, early in January this year, the CEO of Bluelock and I met for breakfast. Honest, we were just friends! Actually, we were client/provider. We ended up having a great conversation about business, technology and transforming a startup to steady-state. The conversation went so well, we decided to meet again to continue the conversation.

As the months flew by, we didn’t quite look at each other and ask when we started dating, but the dialogue did shift to “what would it look like if…”, and eventually, to “how do we make this happen?”

As great as the opportunity sounded, I was conflicted. I had spent 25 years of my 35 year career aspiring to be a CIO, now I was going to walk away from it? Not to mention, I would be switching sides of the desk, moving to the dark side, becoming an evil vendor, would my friends and colleagues still return my calls? I had spent the last several years building a network of CIOs and IT leaders (Indy CIO Network), could I still lead that group effectively?

I reached out to my trusted advisers: my wife, my mentors, a couple members of the Indy CIO Network, my executive coach, and my dad. Each and every conversation reinforced what I was thinking and feeling, one by one they helped me answer all of the questions swirling around in my mind. Before my most recent coaching session, my coach (Dr. Dan Miller) came into my office and said, “come on, we’re going to do something different today.” With that, we walked to the corner overlooking the river.

“The city is not there, these sidewalks are not here. The traffic is gone. You are here among the trees looking out over the river. What are you thinking? What are you feeling?” After about 10 minutes, he said, “let’s head back and do our session.”

Before we crossed the street, I stopped and said, “Thank you. Thank you for making me stop and think. It is the first time I have stopped in months.”

Later, in our session, as I described the company and my new role. Dan stopped me and said, “You’ve already decided. Quit fretting and embrace it.”

Just as our friends were right many years ago, he could not have been more right about this.

So, as I wrap up my last few days at a great organization, with fantastic people, I look ahead to joining a great organization, with fantastic people. I am excited about the waters ahead!

 

Want to exchange ideas on Twitter (@jtonindy)?
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Interested in IT and it’s role in business? Check out my posts on Intel’s IT Peer Network.

 

leadership, education, business, transformationNo, this post is not about a 2015 version of the 80’s band, Flock of Seagulls. Nor, is it really about a flock of geese (lovingly referred to as Sky Carp by my friend Lance). This post is really about the lessons I learned while attending “Transforming Your Leadership Strategy” conducted by MIT Sloan Executive Education. I often joke that I feel smarter just by stepping on campus here in Cambridge. But, it really is no joke, I really do gain new insights each and every time I attend one of the classes here.

I believe what makes these courses unique and extremely valuable are the students themselves. The diversity of the participants is incredible. The countries and therefore the cultures represented included Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Kingdom, Greece, Spain, Ghana, France, Nigeria, Canada, Denmark, Brazil, and, of course, the United States. The industries represented ranged from NGO’s, government agencies, banking, retail, financial, Army, and education (and many others).  To be able to gather with these 60 professionals and discuss leadership was indeed a privilege.

Professor Deborah Ancona led the group through a series of interactive lectures and exercises over the course of two days. She use an unique approach by varying the sizes of the small group activities from two to five, with the stipulation that for each new exercise you had to group with different people. The goal was to meet and speak with everyone in the class. I lost track, but I think I came pretty close to achieving that goal (a pretty amazing feat for an introvert!).business, leadership, education, transformation

I don’t plan to recount all of the sessions from the last two days (to get that level of detail, you need to attend the class!). However, the goal of taking any course like this is to learn something (or be reminded of something) and to take action. After all, you can’t transform your leadership strategy if you don’t take action. Professor Ancona actually gave me a leg up on writing this blog with the last activity of the course. We were to review our notes and list three things we wanted to remember and three actions we wanted to take. Then, in groups of five, we were to share those things. Honestly, the hard part was keeping it to only three! But, here goes:

Lesson Number 1: Leadership is Personal – this was the first notation in my journal, but it probably struck me the most. You can take dozens of leadership classes, you can read thousands of books, you can spend hundreds of hours with mentors, but when it comes right down to it, Leadership is Personal…there are no best practices. Sure, there are techniques, but just as every person is unique, every leader is unique. You have your own strengths and your own weakness. Harness them to lead. Our CEO, Jim McClelland, often says “Accentuate your strengths and make your Weaknesses irrelevant”.

Lesson Number 2: The Bystander helps put things in context – Professor Ancona led us through the four roles of a team: The Mover – the person that suggests an action; The Follower – the person that supports the action; The Opposer – the person that pushes back on the idea for action; and The Bystander – the person that provides context, the big picture and perspective. (Li, I now know what you meant when I asked “Why do I need to be in every meeting” and you responded “You help put things in context and provide the big picture”).

Lesson Number 3: Don’t brick in your teams – teams that are internally focused on norms, team dynamics, and tasks are are only half right. X-Teams (if you don’t take the class, at least read the book) are teams that are networked to others within the organization and outside the organization. By reaching outside the team, the resulting product (whatever the product the team is tasked with producing) is better. Leveraging expertise outside the group when sensemaking (again…take THE CLASS) provides a richer context. Reaching up within the organization and engaging in the politics of the organization is essential for success, as is task coordination across all of the players in the project.

Now, for the actions:

Action Number 1: When in meetings, assess the dynamics of the conversation and make sure that all four roles are represented. If one or more of the roles are not equally represented, I will step in and assume that role, or encourage others to assume that role. For example, if no one is The Opposer, I will suggest to the team that we spend some time discussing why the idea for action WON’T work.

Action Number 2: Encourage everyone on our team to “get out”, go “be in the business”, walk a mile in our mission partners’ shoes (I hate the term end-user, I prefer business partner, or mission partner). Not only will that help with sensemaking, it will enable others in the group to play the Bystander role and set context and perspective.

Action Number 3: Review our previous and on-going projects and identify areas where we may have struggled. Map them against the 4 Capabilities of a Leader (Visioning, Relating, Inventing, and Sensemaking) to see the areas for improvement. Was the vision not clear? Did we not engage the stakeholders? Did the actions not match up with the goal? Did we not spend enough time sensemaking?

There you have it! As I mentioned in one of my LinkedIn posts, you are all now my accountability partners. Follow up! Make sure I am executing the actions!

Now, about those Sky Carp, er, uh, I mean geese. What leadership lessons CAN you learn from a flock of geese? Leadership is Distributed…to lead, sometimes you follow and let others lead. Watch a flock of geese fly over and you will see the goose out front, drop out of formation, a new goose take the lead, the former leader fall back into the formation. Distributed decision making means sometimes the leader becomes the follower.

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Bet you thought this was going to be about something other than leadership, didn’t you? Sorry to disappoint!

I awoke this morning to one of nature’s most beautiful landscapes. After a freshbusiness, leadership, connectivity, technology, marketing snowfall, the Mud Creek valley was a winter wonderland. At first glance it is a world of black and white. However if you look closely it is a palette of dozens of shades of black:  charcoal, ebony, midnight blue, onyx, noir, and jet; dozens of shades of white: snow, ivory, cornsilk, powder, cream, and antique; and yes, dozens (though I didn’t count to 50) shades of grey: light grey, silver, Davy’s grey, ash, slate and Xanadu. There are even shades of greens and browns.

It struck me as I drove my morning commute through the Mud Creek and Fall Creek Valleys that leadership is a lot like a winter landscape. At first glance, many of decisions, opportunities and challenges appear to be black and white, but as we grow as leaders we realize we are really operating in a world of shades of grey. The successful leader slows down to appreciate the landscape and makes thoughtful decisions based on the nuances of a very complex palette.

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.

Bet you thought this was going to be about something other than leadership, didn’t you? Sorry to disappoint!

I awoke this morning to one of nature’s most beautiful landscapes. After a freshbusiness, leadership, connectivity, technology, marketing snowfall, the Mud Creek valley was a winter wonderland. At first glance it is a world of black and white. However if you look closely it is a palette of dozens of shades of black:  charcoal, ebony, midnight blue, onyx, noir, and jet; dozens of shades of white: snow, ivory, cornsilk, powder, cream, and antique; and yes, dozens (though I didn’t count to 50) shades of grey: light grey, silver, Davy’s grey, ash, slate and Xanadu. There are even shades of greens and browns.

It struck me as I drove my morning commute through the Mud Creek and Fall Creek Valleys that leadership is a lot like a winter landscape. At first glance, many of decisions, opportunities and challenges appear to be black and white, but as we grow as leaders we realize we are really operating in a world of shades of grey. The successful leader slows down to appreciate the landscape and makes thoughtful decisions based on the nuances of a very complex palette.

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.